Expressions Presents: José R. Torres-Ramos: Getting in Tune
This article was originally published by the College of Humanities and the Arts in the winter 2023 edition of Expressions, a newsletter created by students in HA-187: Creative Team Practicum. The internship course gives students the opportunity to gain professional experience in writing, graphic design, photography, and video production.
José Torres-Ramos’ formal introduction to music came in middle school where he played trumpet in the marching band. By his senior year he was invited to attend rehearsals in Mariachi, a regional Mexican genre that dates back to the 18th century. As a Mexican American, he says this was an opportunity to connect with part of his identity. It was different from his time in the marching band, as Mariachi performance was marked by a smaller ensemble that puts an emphasis on individual roles.
As Torres-Ramos joins San José State as an assistant professor of ethnomusicology, he appreciates the opportunity to be at a place where he can make a difference and knows his contributions will be important. While many teachers strive to make an impact on the lives of their students, he reminds himself that he can learn as much from them as they learn from him.
Mariachi also falls in tune with his belief that music tends to reflect our ideas about gender, as the style in which certain instruments are supposed to be played can be coded as masculine. Being told not to “play like a girl,” the sound tends to be heavier and more aggressive than classical music, which reflects a historical privilege of men in society. Prior to high school, he had not had exposure to this genre, an experience that foreshadowed his interest in researching the connection between music and cultures around the world.
Torres-Ramos states that his work has made him reconsider the ways in which we think about music. “What is and what isn’t music? There’s a common perception and stereotype that Western European classical music is the system that we’re supposed to compare all other music to,” Torres-Ramos says. He’s made efforts to dispel this notion, referencing how most of the music in the world doesn’t follow the rules of Western European classical music. “Although it has a lot of influence, there are so many variations over ideas of what’s a good tone or what’s the right intonation,” he says. “A lot of Asian music doesn’t follow the same system of pitch and tone as classical music and it’s still music.”
Torres-Ramos challenges the perception that music is a universal language. Citing banda, a rising genre in Mexico, he mentions how it incorporates a lot of Western European instruments but is performed without the polished sound you would hear in a classical orchestra. These differences, and the differences between any two genres, lead to people of different cultures deciding what they think is or isn’t real music. “A classical trumpet player wouldn’t be accepted into a banda, and people that listen to banda wouldn’t want a classical trumpet player to be playing,” Torres-Ramos says.
Traveling across the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean, Torres-Ramos has adjusted the way he approaches cultural differences in music by appreciating how people see their music. “It would be like what’s good food and bad food? I’m not the expert on that. People eat what they enjoy eating and there’s different foods,” he says. “Music is the same way. It’s tied to people’s history, environments and resources.” What really fascinates him is finding out what people like about their music and how you can learn a lot about them based on what they listen to, such as how they see the world. The common thread he finds among all cultures is that human beings are musical beings, regardless of where we come from.